Researching the Sydney Gay Scene of the 90s – Part 3

As well as a Mardi Gras parade and party, there’s a festival.

During the 90s, sponsorship from major brands helped expand the number of events. Film, theatre, live music and sport kept us busy all through February.

Of course, Fair Day was always a popular event, but you were allowed to bring a picnic, settle in and enjoy the day. Sadly, you can’t any more, so some of magic of seeing familiar faces, chatting to friends and meeting new ones, is no longer part of the deal. You go, walk around, watch a performance or three, have a vodka from one of the sponsors, then leave.

The festival began with an official opening. The first one we attended was held on the grass in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art and featured important speakers. It moved to the steps of the Opera House in future years as numbers increased.

Left – The Oxford Hotel’s DJ list during part of the 1993 Mardi Gras celebrations
Middle – A themed night at gay nightclub, The Midnight Shift
Right – Valentines night at DCM nightclub.

A queer African gospel group we saw were happy to be downunder.

During their show, they stopped to talk about how lucky we were not to live in a country where being homosexual was a criminal offence. They spent their queer lives underground, hiding from police scrutiny.

A New York drag queen we saw talked about turning on the TV news before coming to the theatre. She was amazed to see international stories she had no idea about. Sad that this type of news service is now only seen locally on SBS.

As you may have guessed, this week we’re talking about the festival.

Even though I have heaps of Mardi Gras research from the various years of that decade, I though I’d focus on 1993. Even though there was a lot on, this particular year highlights the beginning of larger festivals to come.

The launch of Mardi Gras is at the Green Park Hotel. Tickets to the post-parade party are only $50 and Mardi Gras members were limited to five (you paid an initial $30 for membership so you could buy tickets, then $5 each year after).

In the spotlight is Belvoir Street Theatre where a number of festival plays are being performed. One is Rock, an arty piece about Rock Hudson. Performer, Michael Kearns treats us to monologues dispersed with video clips which help explore “the strange contradictions of Hudson in the places he occupies in our culture.”

During the show, Kearns plays an older teacher at ‘Butch School’ determined to teach Rock how to play ‘straight’ for the movies. Kearns also plays Marilyn Monroe who converses with a drunk Hudson over the phone.

Performers from the dance show, Fred and Ginger Get Laid

Another highlight at Belvoir Street Theatre is Fred and Ginger Get Laid, a dance show that starts with grand opera and ends in with techno.

The Sydney Theatre Company is performing Angels In America, the same year it premiered on Broadway.

There is plenty of art.

One that intrigues me is titled The Thrill of the Habit, where, from what I can make out, is a celebration of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with works created by a large number of artists.

Another aspect that has disappeared from recent festival programs are the talk forums. In 1993, these were some of the topics:

  • For Better of Worse (yes, marriage equality was an issue way back then)
  • Violence in Our Lives
  • Consenting Privates in Public (I can sense your eye brows raising)

Before Queer Screen, there was the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Like Queer Screen, this film festival is being held during Mardi Gras. A documentary on Armistead Maupin is screening with a doco where men talk frankly about their lives, and another about queer bashing. Also showing is a Canadian drama titled Being At Home With Claude about Yves, a male prostitute who murders his student lover.

Classics like Living End, Claire of the Moon and Desert Hearts also screen, the latter is the only one already seen by audiences as it’s an 80s film.

There are other themed nights of shorter films to appeal to lesbian audiences, those interested in trans issues, and a double feature about Mardi Gras itself. Feed Them To The Cannibals celebrates the people that make modern Mardi Gras (albeit in 1993) what it is. Witches and Faggots, Dykes and Poofters is a 1979 doco about the first ever Mardi Gras (a protest march which ended in police violence).

So much indie cinema! Now queer characters are ‘so’ mainstream.

During the 1993 festival, we saw New York singer, Joey Arias, channel Billie Holiday.

It was a brilliant show. Reviewer, Paul Canning, wrote he was sceptical before he attended, then claimed Joey’s…

“…voice was hypnotic. It was feminine. It was masculine. I glanced around to see if it was really coming from the man on stage. It was. I was transported to a smoky nightclub in the fifties.”

Festival 1993 is full of small and large acts, both local and international, creating a rainbow vibe around Sydney. Cabaret performers, bands, actors and DJs also do their bit to add to the celebrations. In later years, comedy acts are introduced with the Great Comedy Debate becoming a staple of the festival.

The Stars Come Out is also added to the program later, a show featuring most of the live acts featured throughout February. Kind of like a ‘sample pack’ to preview who you’ve bought tickets for, and who you should be seeing.

1993 Mardi Gras Poster

Warren and I maxed our credit cards on festival events during the 90s!

In the 2000s, Mardi Gras folds and is reborn, slowly bringing the festival back to former glory. Today, the politics of what it means to be queer is different. A quick glance at this year’s festival has under ten events, more likely due to Covid than anything else.

The irony of the novel I’m writing is that it’s not Mardi Gras season. But the characters do go to Sleaze Ball, the second biggest queer night of the year. The Sleaze Ball was a yearly rave party held to fund the next Mardi Gras season. I thought, as it’s no longer with us (possibly last held in 2010 after doing a quick Google search), it would be nice to include it in my story.

In the past week, I’ve weaved certain historical and cultural events into my outline based on these old issues of the Sydney Star Observer. I’m more confident in finding the right ‘feel’ even if Mardi Gras won’t be part of this tale.

But as you can tell, I have many happy festival memories.


If you’d like to read the earlier blogs in this series:
CLICK HERE for Part One / CLICK HERE for Part Two


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